France split on headscarf ban

18th December 2003, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 18 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac's pledge to back a ban on the Islamic headscarf in schools drew a mixed reaction Thursday, some applauding the reassertion of France's "secular" principles but others calling the proposed law counter-productive and discriminatory.

PARIS, Dec 18 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac's pledge to back a ban on the Islamic headscarf in schools drew a mixed reaction Thursday, some applauding the reassertion of France's "secular" principles but others calling the proposed law counter-productive and discriminatory.

French religious leaders who had expressed opposition to a formal ban on religious insignia in schools tempered their doubts after Chirac's address Wednesday, indicating they would urge acceptance of the new measure when it comes into force in the next academic year.

"As responsible Muslims it is our duty to explain the position of the president. The law of the state is our law. French Muslims must now listen to this message which has been delivered with wisdom," said Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM).

The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) said the president's televised speech "was a response to the essential principle that all those who live in France must submit to the rules and customs of French society."

Education Minister Luc Ferry said the law banning "conspicuous" insignia from the classroom - including the Islamic headscarf, the Jewish kippa and large Christian crosses - will be put before the National Assembly in February and should come into effect by September.

Members of Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party unanimously welcomed his intervention and although among the Socialist opposition the reception was more guarded, there were few voices raised against the principle of the ban.

However some on the left said the president should have opted for a stronger prohibition on all "visible" insignia, arguing that the notion of what is "conspicuous" is ill-determined and will lead to considerable litigation.

Stronger opposition came from many ordinary Muslims who said the law unfairly targetted their community.

"It's a total trap this law. Have you ever seen Christians wearing an immense cross? Of course not. It's meant to discriminate against Muslims 200 percent," said Abdelkarim, a 36-year-old customer at a bakery in the southern city of Marseille.

"Most girls who wear the veil will end up not going to school. But it doesn't matter. The real school is the Koran," he said.

While some rights groups welcomed the proposed law - seeing headscarves as a sign of religious extremism and female subservience - others warned that a ban will drive the Muslim faithful into greater isolation and thus hamper the goal of integration.

Another criticism came from those who believe the headscarf issue is a distraction from the more important question of how to overcome the suspicion that France still harbours towards its five million strong Muslim minority.

Writing in the right-wing daily the Wall Street Journal Europe, French commentator Guy Sorman said that only some 2,000 Muslim girls wear the headscarf in schools today - and that a mere 20 have been expelled this year for doing so.

"What this shows is that the present debate, and the legislation that will come out of it, have less to do with an actual Islamist threat than with perceptions and symbols... But French politics is more comfortable dealing with symbols than with reality," he said.


 © AFP

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